When we were kids, all we heard was how worthless video games were. "Those dopey things will rot your brain," was a favorite of my grandmother's, and even watching television was considered far more educational and intellectual than the mind-melting morass that was video games. Just how much I learned from reruns of Three's Company, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum P.I. is debatable, but I can tell you, there are plenty of valuable life lessons I learned from video games.
So, you're stuck in a room and all you have at your disposal is a rubber chicken (with a pulley in the middle, of course), a bit of string, and a broken pencil. How do you escape? While we may not face such byzantine and bizarre conundrums in real life (although getting out of the MaxPC lab using just a motherboard and a SATA cable can be tricky), when we do have to come up with creative solutions to puzzles, we can thank video games for expanding our problem-solving horizons.
MacGuyver's got nothin' on us. We just saved the world with an assortment of trash, novelty toys, and a pair of chopsticks.
From the somewhat arcane item-based adventure games of yesteryear, to the more organic, environmental puzzles in games like Portal, games have taught us to carefully study our environment one pixel, er, inch at a time to better understand our surroundings.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posited that the key to true success in any given field is the 10,000 hour rule. Basically, in order to master something, you'll need to practice—a lot. There's only so far that natural talent and quick reflexes will get you, and while this may seem like common sense, this fact is hammered home repeatedly any time you play games competitively.
Clearly this man is perfect.
Ever taken a peek at your Steam friends list and noticed that one buddy of yours who's played three thousand hours of Team Fortress 2? He's a tad shy of Gladwell's 10k, but he's probably still pretty damn good. Every time you're being headshot by a Prestige with a 30-frag kill streak, or watching with awe as professional StarCraft 2 players effortlessly glide around at over 300 actions per minute, just remember, this didn't happen overnight, they practiced like mad to get so good. So, just apply that 10,000 hour rule outside of gaming and you're golden—though you'll probably still get owned in multiplayer.
Another rule from the annals of common sense, and one that in theory is hardcoded into our genetics, is that gravity always wins. However, there are still people who don't treat gravity with quite the, well, gravity that it deserves. Gaming has long taught us, however, that gravity is not something to be taken lightly.
Whether it's Donkey Kong giving a hands-on (and heads-on) lesson in the power of falling barrels, or our own player avatars screaming in horror as they plunge into a ragdolly pile of gibs and twisted limbs, we've learned to take fall hazards seriously. So yes mom, I'm sorry I hung from the guard rail at Niagara Falls when I was 6, but thanks to games (and thankfully not to real life experience) I've learned my lesson.
For years people have complained that water death is one of the most unrealistic aspects of gaming. Gaming heroes are shot, stabbed, beaten, mauled by animals, and otherwise abused in ways that would be fatal to anyone shy of Superman, and yet one quick dip into the drink and it's lights out. Well this bit of wicked witch-esque hydrophobia may be a bit off-putting given the superhuman context of games, but gaming isn't all wet here—water kills.
Drowning, sharks, man-eating tigers, there's plenty of reasons to stay out of water.
While our Google fact-finding mission yielded massive fluctuations regarding drowning mortality statistics (between 140,000 and 1.2 million per year, globally), drowning is still the second highest cause of accidental death in children. Plus, while man may be the unquestioned master of land, all our fancy tools and gadgets quickly fall apart in the water. Just about every aquatic creature could kick our ass in its native environment—put spikes on a starfish and we're toast. Clearly, the only reason we survived childhood was a healthy fear of water cultivated by games.
After a recent game review I got a concerned e-mail from my father. "How do you know so much about the weight and feel of shotguns, machine guns, and rocket launchers? Do you have some homicidal dark secret you're not telling me?" I assured him, all my knowledge of army slang and weapons-grade ballistics comes solely from a lifetime of playing as space marines, super soldiers, and secret agents in video games (and not from my weekend gig as a hitman-for-hire, shhh).
No, whiskey tango foxtrot doesn't mean asking this girl out for drinks and dancing.
While 90% of this so-called knowledge of weapons, tactics, and military jargon is in no way transferrable to the real world, it is cool to learn some of the lingo. At least now I can keep up with Tom Clancy novels and sound super-badass when I'm ordering around my squad in paintball. I also will be slightly less overwhelmed when choosing a weapon during the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
Games probably aren't the best place to learn about relationships, but the good ones do teach us a valuable lesson about love: it's all about communication. See, when you're trying to get some virtual action in just about any game with relationship options, gifts may get you in the door, but they only go so far. Try putting some gold or fancy bling into your wannabe-lover's inventory? Not impressed. Try showing off your awesome abilities on and off the battlefield? Nothing.
Choose wisely, Shepard. Choose wisely.
No, the only way to really woo your mate of choice is through the lost art of conversation. Show interest, ask them about their family, promise you'll help them get revenge against their slain goldfish. Only through patience, dialogue trees, and shamelessly agreeing and nodding along to everything your paramour says can you win love. Just like real life.
Even if you could buy love, you wouldn't want to—you'd get ripped off. Yes, games seem to follow the rule of Gordon Gecko: greed is good…for NPCs at least. Trying to save the world? Penniless protagonists need not apply, as you'll need every last cent to buy the gear and supplies needed, no world savior discount, of course.
And then there's the fairly ubiquitous car dealership mentality where everything you buy gets "drive it off the lot value." Standard video game economics puts the sell rate at 50% of the buy rate, already well beyond reasonable, but other games set this rate even lower. What does this teach us, exactly? Simple: Whether it's a sub-prime loan, a suspiciously good deal on eBay, or worst of all, game trade-in prices at Gamestop, everyone's trying to screw you. So stay smart, stay informed, and make sure to jack up your speech and barter skills whenever you get the chance.
There's one thing tying together just about every video game protagonist. Whether it's Batman, Commander Shepard, Nathan Drake, Gordon Freeman, Lara Croft, or your nameless dude or dudette from Fallout or Skyrim—they're all in awesome shape. Sure, Half-Life might not be about a mild-mannered middle aged man's quest to keep his 32 waistline, but with all the dashing, jumping, and crawling (not to mention lugging around a veritable arsenal of gear) but Mr. Freeman's greatest success isn't stopping an alien invasion, it's having the endurance to withstand the brutal run, swim, shoot triathlon of death.
Heroes manage to find the time to make it to the gym between world saving. So should you.
Oh, there are exceptions here and there (that Mario guy could stand to lay off the pizza a bit), but for the most part, you need to be in tip-top shape to save the world. Yes, my protagonist is a homicidal gun-toting maniac, but check out that six-pack—dude works out. So kids, go out and emulate the running, jumping, diving, and strafing aspect of your favorite heroes. And maybe leave the gun wielding part out of it.
Ever been in a groove in a game before suddenly dying horribly, at which point you hit the reload key and kicked yourself when you realized you hadn't saved in hours? Of course you have, everyone's done that at least once. There may not be saving in real life (don't we all wish), but you can apply the save frequently adage to real life just the same.
Good thing you saved, right? Right?!
There's literal saving when working in other non-game programs (wait, there are non-game programs now?). It seems like the poor schlubs in the non-gamer sector are far more prone to losing hours of work on their spreadsheets and word files. Me? I save every five minutes—you just never know when that Windows Office paperclip will pop up and just murder you and/or your document. Then there's more figurative saving. Write down your passwords, organize your files, both online and off, make photocopies, back up your data, do whatever it takes to ensure the safety and accessibility of your vital information. It's this type of fatalistic paranoia that makes gamers the ultimate boy scouts: we're always prepared.
Of course the point of video games is to have fun. Real life may be more serious business, but that shouldn't stop you from enjoying yourself. So lighten up, take a deep breath, and relax. As they say, if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.